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Anatomy of an Earthquake: Colima 2003

As in a nightmare, buildings on both sides of the street shuddered and swayed before cracking in half or collapsing in piles. Roofs fell in and windows broke as roaring, shrieking and tearing sounds pierced the air. Huge cracks appeared in the streets, cars crashed into one another, utility poles swayed and snapped. And then the lights went out.

On the evening of January 22, 2003, a rolling, pitching earthquake left 25 people dead in the state of Colima. The 7.6-magnitude quake was centered just offshore, and this tiny state on the Pacific coast of Mexico suffered the most extensive damage. Hardest hit was the capital, about 480 kilometers (300 miles) west of Mexico City. Of the more than 300 people who received medical treatment, most were injured by the collapsing walls and roofs of old adobe houses.

Canadian Lawrence LeBarge lived in the city, where he tutored English conversation classes. He describes his experience during the quake: "I was teaching a private student when about eight in the evening, the table where we were sitting bounced into the air. I was able to make it to the front door of the house and was almost knocked to my knees by the combination of shaking and bouncing. Two seconds later, we were plunged into darkness. I groped my way out into the dark street to my car, which I held onto to keep from falling. After about 30 seconds of shaking and bouncing, there was an indescribable sensation of falling. When we hit bottom, the next thing I remember was the horrific sound of houses falling over."

Nearly 2,000 buildings in the state were totally destroyed, thousands more seriously damaged. In downtown Colima entire city blocks overflowed with the debris of ruined houses. Within a few days, members of the Mexican military had begun cleanup efforts. While aftershocks of 3.9 to 5.8 magnitudes continued to shake buildings and rattle nerves, professors from the University of Colima's School of Architecture began assessing damage and advising occupants regarding the structural integrity of their homes.

Despite its long history of devastating earthquakes, Colima has a history of rising from its ashes. Today Colima is a boom town. A few crumbled ruins remain, but most of the lots that were leveled have been rebuilt to satisfy the capitalís appetite for new goods and services.

Many people from other states are moving to Colima to enjoy the regionís prosperity, and the cityís growing sophistication reflects this trend. Modern buildings and signs of globalization may seem to be changing Colima forever, but behind this fresh face awaits a historical certainty. Long-time residents know that in Colima, change---often quick and devastating---is inevitable.

---Jane Onstott

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